Monday, November 15, 2010

Planning for Inquiry

A couple of weeks ago, one of the comments to a post I made asked for more clarification about inquiry and how we plan for it.  This made me realise that the majority of people who read my blog are not actually teaching in PYP schools and possibly find the inquiry approach hard to understand.  I decided that I would write a post about how we use inquiry and how we plan for it.

Inquiry is all about students constructing their own meaning.  We therefore start by considering what we would like students to know, understand and be able to do.  We ask the questions:  What do we want to learn?, how best will we learn? and how will we know what we have learned?  These three questions lead us to the curriculum framework.  It's important to realise that the PYP is a framework, not a syllabus or body of content that has to be covered.  The emphasis is definitely not on coverage.  It is on deep understanding of what is significant and relevant, rather than mastering a vast quantity of knowledge.

The question What do we want to learn? leads us to the written curriculum.  This deals with knowledge (what we want the students to know), concepts (what we want the students to understand), skills (what we want the students to be able to do), attitudes (what we want the students to value and demonstrate) and action (how we want the students to act).  How best will we learn leads us to consider the taught curriculum.  What we are looking at here is classroom practice and this is where we demonstrate our commitment to inquiry and students constructing meaning.  How we will know what we have learned brings us to the assessed curriculum.

The PYP is committed to inquiry - students are engaged in their own learning by formulating questions and designing their own inquiries, research or experiments in order to arrive at a deeper understanding  by building connections between their prior knowledge and new information and experiences the encounter.  Teachers provide the provocations and the time for the inquiry as well as facilitating reflection on what has been learned.  Students will analyse and synthesise their knowledge in the light of their experiences, leading them to new levels of understanding.  It is expected that this new understanding will motivate the students to action.

Teachers plan for these inquiry in very systematic ways.  There are 6 transdisciplinary themes that are collaboratively planned each year with homeroom and specialist teachers.  To start with we will always consider our purpose, which is the central idea for the unit of inquiry, and we will check to see how it connects with the particular transdisciplinary theme we are studying.  The central idea is at the heart of the student inquiries and it is concept driven.  The aim is that the concepts will challenge and extend students' prior knowledge and understanding.  At the beginning we will also consider what the summative assessment will be.

We will then move on to look at what we want to learn, the key concepts and related concepts and 3 or 4 lines of inquiry to deepen and focus the students' inquiries.  We will discuss the teacher questions or provocations - those questions we ask at the beginning of a unit to engage the students and we will discuss how we can assess prior knowledge and skills.  We use the inquiry cycle so at this point are discussing tuning in.

Finding out, sorting out and going further come next.  Here we will be discussing the learning experiences, transdisciplinary skills that the students will need to develop, and the learner profile and the attitudes we want to encourage in our students.  We will be expecting our students to be making conclusions and taking action.

Towards the end of the unit of inquiry we all meet again to reflect upon the extent that we achieved our purpose.  We talk about the connections students made to the central idea, the transdisciplinary theme and skills, the concepts and the learner profile and because it is an explicit expectation that successful inquiry will lead to responsible action, we also discuss student-initiated action and further inquiry.

Now it's time to start the process all over again ...  planning the next unit of inquiry.

Inquiry Cycle diagram by IST Library on Flickr


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to lead us through this process Maggie! Very schools plan inquiry this way or put students in charge of learning this way. It is wonderful to see how it is done in the pyp. Do the teachers have guidelines for the units of inquiry or are they largely on their own to develop them?

  2. The units of inquiry are all based on the 6 transdisciplinary themes. I think to explain further I will need to write another blog post ......